Land preservation plan is being revised again

December 30, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County's on-again, off-again farmland preservation program is about to undergo another metamorphosis.

During the first incarnation -- from 1980 to 1988 -- county officials said there were too few participants. During the second incarnation -- 1989 to 1991 -- they said there were too many. In 1993, they hope the number of applicants will be just right.

But no one knows for sure because the county is changing the rules for admission to the program, to be more selective when purchasing easements.

When the program was begun in 1980, the county hoped to preserve 30,000 acres in the rural western portion of the county. But the price it was paying for easements was far less than developers were offering.

By 1988, the program had become so unattractive to landowners that only one sought admission.

The overhaul that followed was so successful it became a model for preservation programs nationwide. It would have been financially a sweet deal by any measure, but when the recession occurred a few months later, it became absolutely saccharin.

Until 1988, the county paid cash for easements to the property forever out of development. Under the new arrangement, it purchased easements over a 30-year period. Rather than pay the full amount up front, the county paid the owners interest on that amount tax-free for 30 years. It also made small payments on the capital with a balloon payment at the end. The agreed-on price was usually about 60 percent or more of what a developer would offer if developers were still buying.

Between October 1988 when the new financing began and Jan. 30, 1991, when the County Council began worrying about the perception that the government was creating instant millionaires, acres were added to the program. Another 3,312 acres were pending.

The preservation program was flourishing at a time when the rest of the county was foundering. Property taxes were raised, programs were cut and county employees were furloughed five days without pay after having gone without raises.

The $15 million left for acquisitions in the preservation program was viewed as a short-term solution to the county's financial crisis. But rather than raid the fund, the council heeded the wishes of County Executive Charles I. Ecker and put the program on hold.

No new properties have been added since last January when the council approved payment of $2 million for easements on 353 acres. During the same meeting, the council also rejected payment of $268,000 for a 55-acre parcel, only the second time the council had rejected easements on property recommended by the Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board.

Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, was instrumental in getting both parcels rejected, saying the parcels were too small for inclusion, because they were not adjacent to property already in the program.

If the acquisition program were to continue, nonadjacent parcels should be at least 100 acres, Mr. Farragut said at the time. Since then, the Ecker administration has picked up his suggestion and included it the revisions now before the preservation advisory board.

The board has tentatively scheduled a Jan. 7 work session to review legislative changes. The board also is considering technical changes to make county law conform to current practice.

Rules that now govern how properties in the program may be subdivided to accommodate heirs are also being amended. But if approved, they will not be retroactive.

Under current rules, a property owner with 10 children, for instance, could create 10 lots in the easement while a property owner with one child could carve out only one lot. The new rules restrict the number of lots that can be subdivided, based on the total size of the parcel.

One of the biggest changes will be financial. The county has been guaranteeing a minimum of 8 percent interest on its tax-free payments to participants -- about 5 percent more than many banks pay now in taxable interest. Tax-free interest is usually one or two percentage points lower than taxable interest, and the county wants to lower the minimum interest it guarantees on all new installment purchases.

The price per acre should remain roughly the same, says James R. Moxley III, chairman of the advisory committee.

"Values have not gone up very much in the last couple of years," he said. "On the other hand, no one knows yet how new zoning [in western Howard County] is going to affect values. Prices will continue to be comparative and will really depend on the individual prices of property."

In January, the council approved a price of $5,000 an acre on a 108-acre Mount Airy parcel and prices of $6,000 an acre on smaller parcels in Mount Airy, West Friendship and Woodbine.

Under the new rules, the county would no longer require appraisals, Mr. Moxley said. They were never used to establish ++ price, were expensive to the county, and were often a source of contention between the county and property owners, he said.

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